“A Good Husband” came from my researches into water creatures. I didn’t want quite a mermaid because, well, everyone’s got a mermaid (note: yes, I know all the art here is mermaid’ish). But then I found mention of the mari-morgan, a Welsh/Breton water spirit; they drown men as well as any mermaid, they’re beautiful, they cause floods and disaster. Perfect.
I started thinking about how boring it has to be, being eternal. I wanted her to be a solitary creature, worshipped, a woman’s kind of idol, but that should also play into her aloneness. I wanted her to have her own yearning, her own particular thing to envy the human girls: lovely dresses. So she bargains with the girls who come to her for favours, and asks for lovely dresses in return – but that never works out, a lesson in finding what you wish for never being quite right. But then Kitty comes along, with her clever seamstress’s fingers and her deep-running desire – for something as pointless (and constantly disappointing) as the mari-morgan’s dresses: a good husband.
“A Good Husband” has most recently been reprinted in Paula Guran’s Mermaids and Other Mysteries of the Deep (via Prime Books – and in which you should also read Lisa Hannett’s “Forever, Miss Tapekwa County” and Genevieve Valentine’s “Abyssus Abyssum Invocat”, because = FLAIL SO GOOD).
A Good Husband
The water here is sweet.
This lake is wide enough and deep enough to give me the space I need. At the northern end a stream flows in bringing water from a larger river many miles distant; at the southern end a tributary flows out far, far away to the ocean. There the taste changes and becomes salty, the colour murky. Fine enough for my cousins with their scaled tales and sharp nails, frilled gills and tiny teeth. Well and good for the sirens even more distant relatives, creatures who cannot decide between water and air, whether they are fish or fowl. Such bitter water is not my choice though, oh no.
I love this place. It’s somewhere between a small lake and an overly large pond, a strange
in-between thing, to be sure. The important thing is this: it’s mine and mine alone. In some spots there are reeds, in others rocks for sitting while I comb my hair, grassy banks, and a thick screen of trees providing cover from the casual onlooker. I get visitors, oh yes, but only the women of Briarton (the town through the trees and over one hill, nesting in a gentle valley) come here with any kind of regularity. It’s mostly the unmarried girls. The Lake of the Mari-Morgan is a place they have claimed for themselves. They come here to dance and sing and play. Before a special occasion like a wedding, they will conduct their toilettes n the waters of the lake, washing their hair to make it shine and their skin so it glows (the water here is said to have beautifying properties – it’s true, my little gift to them). With gifts, large and small, they beg my favour, pray, cry, gives thanks, rail at fate or me (whichever pops into their heads first), yearn and sometimes get what they want. If I can grant a request, I generally do. Sometimes I chose not to, simply so they do not take it for granted; on those occasions they seem to assume their wish was not worthy, or their offering even less so.
I do quite like them, little humans, with their funny hearts and minds, their queerer souls. If I am honest, I find them amusing. If I am even more honest, the company they offer is worth the expenditure of magic to give them their heart’s desire. I am a solitary creature but sometimes the isolation makes me ache.
Seldom do I show myself nowadays when they make their requests. Not that I am less beautiful or less vain, but I am infinitely more tired. If they see the weariness in my face, then what hope for them when an ageless being looks to have lost her spark? I speak only when I choose and it seems to work best as a disembodied voice – perhaps it’s the god-like quality. When I do appear it’s to make a point, a scene, a statement. Sometimes a clever girl will express, in front of her companions, disbelief that I exist. She might stand on my favourite rocky seat, the one a long step from the shore, and declaim her cynicism. What better way to prove her wrong than to be seen, gliding over the lake, all a-glimmer?
Their mothers seem to stop coming after marriage. I have often wondered if their hope dies then, or marriage was simply what they wanted. Having achieved it, they are content to chew on that same meat.
This one, this tall thin woman who comes all hesitating through the trees, is different though. This one I am fascinated by, oh yes.
She leans down close to the liquid mirror of the lake. She has visited here since she was a little girl, always bringing a tiny offering of some kind: flowers, sweetmeats, salted fish, embroidered pieces of rag made beautiful with her cunning stitches. She has never asked for anything in return, not ever, not even before her own wedding. The name the other girls call to her is “Kitty”; she sews for them. They have dressed in marriage and ball gowns of her making after bathing in the waters of my lake. I have seen those dresses wrapped in sheets and draped carefully over bushes and branches until the moment they are required. I’ve watched Kitty sewing them by the water’s edge, smiling gently as her companions laugh and dance around her while she toils on their behalf.
This day, this hour, the scars on her face are still fresh, the reddish-brown of dried, scabbed blood. Two parallel lines run across the bridge of her nose before dropping down her left cheek. She will never be pretty again – and she was pretty, I will tell you that. Large blue eyes, a doll’s pouting mouth and hair that was most glorious – is most glorious still, yet looks like a joke now perched on the mess of her face.
When first it happened, she came here to weep. Blood was still flowing and mixed with her tears to drip into the water. That got my attention: grief and blood. Sacrifices very few ever make, although she did not know it for a sacrifice and there was no one to tell her.
Her friends urged her to wash her face in the lake and it did some good, made the healing faster, but in truth the scars will never be gone. There was too much force behind them and too much spite – that’s what makes them so deep, the spite. It bites not merely the flesh, but also the soul.
Kitty stares at her reflection, her features set in a determined way. She peers intently as if she might be able to see me through sheer force of will – she cannot although I lie right beneath her, studying her intently through the pane of water. The wounded woman opens her mouth and says, ‘Help me.’
Her tears start again and I can taste their salt as they drop down, forming ripples in my home.
‘Help me,’ she says again. ‘Mari-Morgan, please help me.’
I kick away but make no disturbance in the glassy stillness. Blood and tears she gave me already, all unknowing. For this reason alone I must make answer to her summons. She will ask something great of me, something I may not be able to deliver. I can only throw out an obstacle for her and hope she will give up.
Rising, I become visible, walking across the surface as if it is solid. I know how I must look to her when she’s so ruined. I can see my reflection in her large eyes: silver-green hair, silver-peach skin, eyes like a deep lake that cannot decide between blue or green or black, and a not-quite-stable outline. I ripple, I shimmer, my element is also my essence – in a bright light you might even see through me. I defy the eye to focus properly.
‘What would you have of me?’ I ask in a voice that sounds like a rushing flood. She shakes her head at this hoped-for appearance and I can see that she did not quite believe it would happen. All these years she has brought offerings to a creature she was not quite sure existed. I am both touched and vaguely annoyed.
‘Make him kind. Make him love me. Make him a good husband. Make my life better.’ Her long hands move to her scarred visage even though she seems not to notice. She doesn’t quite touch the wounds and they must ache still, stretching tight and itching as they dry and knit. Kitty knows how much she asks.
‘What will you give me?’ I ask, as if the dripping blood and flowing grief were not enough. ‘Nothing can be given without something in return, oh no.’
‘What will you have? Ask anything,’ she says unwisely.
A long time ago when I loved to be seen, when I was younger, less tired, more arrogant, then, for a time, I asked for dresses. I wanted, silly conceited thing, to wear the pretty clothes the human girls did, to adorn myself like the colourful birds that nest in the trees along the banks. And the maidens brought them to me, exquisite things, almost works of art and oftentimes more than the girls could afford – I’m fairly sure some of them dropped their own wedding dresses into the lake. I marvelled over them as they were held above the surface, watched as the sun glinted on buttons and silken bows, crystals and beads and velvet ribbons. They looked so lovely out there in the light when they were dry. Their owners would throw these glorious gowns into my lake and they would grow heavy with water and sink. I would scoop them up and struggle into the sodden frippery and find the garment, bereft of air and sun, had somehow died. Swimming in wet clothing is difficult to say the least. Shimmering and shimmying, floating and darting through water and lake weeds is neither easy nor pleasant when attired in a sodden drape of fabric. So I stopped asking for this particular kind of gift. I gave up and embraced my watery nakedness, my uncertain outline and the translucent nature of my body.
But now here is a clever, clever girl with brilliant, cunning fingers who sews the way my sea cousins create storms, with the same aplomb and passion.
I make my request and see her heart sink. My unkindness will save her further distress, I tell myself. If she cannot fulfil my price, then both our lives will be easier. One should not ask for what one thinks one wants, it is never the same as it seems when you are not in possession of it; like those dresses, so lovely in the sunshine, so disappointing in my hands.